Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The History Man

Over at Hawkins Bizarre, Alis invites us to list our best reads of 2008. I can't remember the detail of what I've read this year, which makes it rather a hard game to play for me. The books that have stood out, not always for the right reasons, include:

1812 (Adam Zamoyski)
Napoleon invades Russia. Then he goes home again.

The Other Boleyn Girl, The Boleyn Inheritance, The Other Queen, The Constant Princess (Philippa Gregory)
A tried and trusted multi-viewpoint narrative approach taking a female perspective on the Tudor era. Succeeds more often than it fails.

Year of Wonders (Geraldine Brooks)
A haunting evocation of a village isolated by bubonic plague.

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
Death guides us through life in Germany in World War II. Quicker to read than summarise...

Sword Song (Bernard Cornwell)
I abandoned this halfway through; a lifeless retread of much better books from his past.

The First Law trilogy (Joe Abercrombie)
Kick-ass fantasy that at once celebrates and subverts the fantasy genre.

One of things that's immediately apparent from this list--which is not exhaustive--is that all of the books are in some way historical: straight history (Zamoyski), invented history (Abercrombie) or historical novels. Am I reading nothing else? I look at my current to-read pile: Henry II (W.L. Warren), 1066 (W.L. Warren), Jerusalem (Cecelia Holland). My Christmas list includes A Time Traveller's Guide to the 14th Century and Young Stalin. Somewhere I have turned into an avid historian, which might just be understandable if I wrote historical fiction (hmm... too much research, too many picky readers).

It does illustrate that fantasy, particularly the kind of fantasy I write, is very akin to historical fiction, but more than anything it's about my mindset. No doubt there are plenty of wryly humorous novels about forty-something middle managers beset by office politics in the beleaguered public sector: but why would I want to read that? I live it... My imagination is fired by stories of other times, other places, and it doesn't much matter if they're made up or "true" (whatever the latter term means in this context).

Next year will be a whole new crop of books, a new series of worlds to enjoy - so roll on 2009!

Merry Christmas to all ::Acquired Taste readers, including the Googlebots which have so assiduously visited the blog throughout the year!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Little Seasonal Nonsense

...or, what I'm doing instead of editing

I've been distracting myself this afternoon with Wordle, a curious application which literally paints a picture with words. Here's one I made earlier:

The size of the word is proportional to its frequency in the text--in this case, The Dog of the North. Click on the image for a larger version.

This was so much fun that I made wordles for all the other novel-length fictions I've written, including the draft of The Last Free City (well, it beats editing it...)


The Last Free City

The Zael Inheritance

You probably have to be a bit nerdy to enjoy this. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then 130,000 words can also be worth a picture...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ain't nothin' goin' on...

Editing, for me at least, is the least interesting part of the creative process. It's also the least interesting to blog about: at the moment, I'm reading the first draft of The Last Free City, and have noted some things that need changing. You don't say...

If you want to read an interesting and informative post about self-editing fiction, this isn't it. (The good news, however, is that this is: Sam Hayes--or Sam Hayesova as her Slovakian fans know her--maintains an excellent blog with a post on just this topic. Sam's post on editing also works in a link to an excellent Regina Spektor song which is worth the entry fee alone).

My initial view of The Last Free City is that it's not as good as The Dog of the North, a feeling I've long come to distrust. The more whiskers it grows, the more I'll come to love it. There's really nothing unfixably wrong with it. I've planted a few seeds in the story which don't pay off by the end, so I've got to decide whether to shoehorn in the payoffs or drop the seeds altogether. One of the minor plot strands threatens to overwhelm the others. One of the main characters seems underdeveloped. A couple of the scenes probably don't have the right viewpoint character.

On the other hand, some things are better than I thought. I have a minor character so spiteful she is a joy on the page; and more importantly the milieu of Taratanallos, the Last Free City, so malignantly undercuts the title as to create a sense of jewelled menace which is richer and darker than I'd originally conceived.

Over Christmas I'll finish the reading (another 50 or so pages to go) and then it's back to the business end of rewriting. Wish me luck!

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And don't forget to vote for The Dog of the North in the Gemmell Legend Award poll. Voting starts on 26 December and I'll provide full instructions once the lists open.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Why Should I Read...?

1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow
Adam Zamoyski, 2004

Looking down the "Why Should I Read...?" list I am surprised at the almost complete absence of historical fact, as opposed to historical fiction. The omission is a strange one, as I read a lot of history, both out of curiosity and as a prompt for the kind of fantasy fiction I write.

1812 is unique among my list in joining even before I finish it (I've got about 100 pages to go). Some things are too good to keep. Zamoyski's book does exactly what one would expect from the title: take us through, from the French and Russian sides, Napoleon's magnificently flawed 1812 campaign, when his invincibility unravelled and his decline began. Zamoyski's work excels in quoting a huge array of primary sources, in his clear-sighted analysis of the bigger picture, his humanisation of the protagonists, and his lucid prose, which occasionally gives us a hint of Gibbon. Of Count Rostopchin, he observes: "In his privy he had installed a fine bronze bust of Napoleon, suitably adapted to serve the lowest function." Napoleon's army falls back on Smolensk, where there is little food to be had, and Zamoyski tells us: "When [the civilians] ran out of money or things to sell they were reduced to begging. In this, the women had an unenviable advantage". I admit to being fussy: I want my historians to understand history, but to command my attention I also demand that they can write.

Zamoyski adds enough new information and interpretation to the well-known story that it will repay the attention of scholar and novice alike, and never loses sight of the fact that he must tell us a story as well as impressing fellow historians. The Napoleon we see here, at the point of being humbled by his hubris, is compellingly different to the conqueror of Austerlitz or even the doomed bravo of Waterloo; and the bickering Russian commanders, invariably francophile in sympathy, are wonderfully differentiated.

This is a treat: just about the perfect history book.

How has it influenced me?

A book which I have yet to finish inevitably has to wait to exercise its influence. But I have long been aware of a novel I have yet to write in my Mondia cycle (The Last Free City already strongly hints at it) which has many similarities to Napoleon's Moscow campaign. Zamoyski gives us a brilliant commander whose faith in his own invincibility brings about his downfall; a long campaign in enemy territory; a disorganised opposition which triumphs despite its own internal divisions. All of these things were already envisaged for The City of Green Glass (working title), but 1812 has given me plenty of new ideas and refinements. My inspirations for Mondia are primarily medieval, but there is a timelessness about the Greek tragedy of this campaign which it's hard to ignore. (As an aside, I wonder whether Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy has a similar influence--Napoleon's retreat in appalling conditions, and the endless machinations of the Russian staff officers both seem strongly reflected).

Even the names are perfect: the Russians Barclay de Tolly, Bagration, Baggovut, Wittgenstein, Wintzingerode, Radozhitsky; the Frenchmen St Cyr, Sanguszko, Rapp. 1812 is a book which should fire the imagination of all writers of fantasy and historical fiction

Lessons for the aspiring writer

  • Truth may indeed by stranger than fiction, and it can also be as dramatic
  • The desire to create a shaped and satisfying narrative is as important in history as in fiction
  • Writers can--and perhaps should--be influenced by history at least as much as by other novelists
  • There is something irresistible about a great man brought low by strengths which contain the seeds of his destruction
  • If you are writing about military campaigns (and indeed if you are planning them yourself) don't ignore supply lines and logistics...

Monday, December 01, 2008

Paperback Writer

One of the many pleasures of the MNW soiree at Len Tyler's on Friday was the chance to catch up with my editor Will. As well as articulating--perhaps for the first time--what The Last Free City is 'about', I also got Will's permission to put the proof of The Dog of the North's paperback cover on the blog. I thought the hardback was great, but this is even better.

This is a proof, so for those of you with excessive attention to detail, it will be published by Tor, not Pan, and--this may come as a shock--The Dog of the North is not non-fiction.

With its brooding restraint, I think this is a glorious cover. 'Never judge a book by its cover', while undoubtedly sage advice, takes no account of how people behave in practice, so I'm indebted to Macmillan's graphic department for a cover so in keeping with the book.